Ethiopia: Obbo - in Ethiopia, the Times They Are a-Changin'

Ethiopia on map.

The earth didn't shake, but something big happened in Ethiopia last Wednesday.

Fikadu Tsega, an official in the Attorney General's office told the Associated Press that more than 1,200 people have been killed, and more than 1.2 million displaced in clashes in the country over the past year.

The clashes, the report noted, have been largely along ethnic lines, and have continued to strain the reforms announced by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed after he took office in April 2018.

Fikadu said they believe the actual numbers could be higher as "these are the ones that we only were able to document," and that the Attorney General's office has pressed charges against more than 1,300 people, with some 645 now in police custody.

Let's pause to consider what just happened here. Until Abiy came to power and surprised, possibly even himself, with bold political and economic reforms, Ethiopia (if you count its centuries as an empire and Abyssinia) had been a dictatorship for nearly 3,000 years, as someone put it rather melodramatically.

In recent decades, Ethiopia -- like all dictatorships -- was renowned for its secretive officialdom. It buried news of killings, death in famines, and everything else with the bodies. And governments, even democratic ones, tend to undercount casualties (and overcount votes), because the true scale of, for example, people killed in communal violence makes the government look bad and not in control. Indeed, in Tanzania, if reports are to be believed, the government is hiding information on Ebola and related deaths.

But here is an Ethiopian official saying, "wait a minute, the number of people killed could actually be higher than what we are telling you."

The other thing is that grave matters like these, are usually left for the prime minister or president, or powerful ministers, to announce. A ka-small (junior) official dare not speak these truths, as it is the kind of thing that can get her or his tongue cut out.

It gives us another hint to how Abiy's Ethiopia is changing. A few months ago, it looked like his reform gamble was going to blow up badly in his face, and there were doubts he would hold on to power.

The country was riven by violent unrest, as communities fought over everything from resources to power. There were armed gangs roaming neighbourhoods. Long oppressed groups were demanding independence.

The Abiy government didn't draw the guns, sometimes looking clueless, and weak. Yet, here we are. Ethiopia looks calmer than it has been in years.

The quarrels are dying down. Abiy seems to have consolidated his power, without having to string opponents and critics up electricity poles in Addis Ababa as Mengistu Haile Mariam's military junta did.

It seems like in Ethiopia we are seeing, in one of the clearest examples in our part of the world, how considerably free politics (democracy lite) and economic reforms, can work to re-engineer a country and exorcise some of its political demons.

It's not done yet, by a long stretch. It could still unravel. And next year there is an election. Abiy's ruling EPRDF will have, for the first time, not to overcount its votes. Still, to steal the words of British poet Alfred Lord Tennyson, it would still be better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is publisher of data visualiser Africapaedia and Rogue Chiefs.

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